Nick Bidwell profiles half-a-dozen of Europe’s top dead-ball experts…
1. Juan Arango – Borussia Monchengladbach (Ger)
In common with the majority of his countrymen, Venezuelan Juan Arango’s first love as a youngster was baseball. But fortunately for aficionados of intricate midfield play and dead-ball expertise, he eventually opted to dedicate himself to the beautiful game, going on to become widely regarded as his nation’s best-ever footballing export.
One of the most accomplished free-kick takers in the Bundesliga today, the 32-year-old ex-Mallorca playmaker claims he does not practise extensively – “I just know how to do it” – and this insouciant, instinctive approach is there for all to see when he lines up a set-piece. A quick glance to weigh up the situation, a couple of steps backwards and then the coup de grace: the wall and goalkeeper invariably circumvented by velocity, precision and swerve.
His most memorable effort of recent times was a curling shot inside the near post of Hanover’s Ron-Robert Zieler’s goal from a spot way out on the left to snatch a 3-2 victory after being two down in October.
2. Oleksandr Aliyev – Dnipro (Ukr, on loan from Dynamo Kiev)
The overused phrase “the Beast from the East” often refers to a glacial weather front, a heavy metal album or a Russian boxer. However, it could just as easily be used to describe the cannonball shooting of the Ukraine attacking midfielder Oleksandr Aliyev.
For all the weaknesses that his critics constantly accuse him of – hot-headedness and inconsistency among them – the one charge they cannot lay at his door is powder-puff free-kicks. Vapour trails come as standard with his right-footed rockets – such as the 40-yarder he struck in the 2006 Euro Under-21 finals against Turkey. He also has the ability to administer alternative punishments, such as the deceptive, floating cross-shot or the delicate clip over the wall.
In 2010, when he was playing in Russia, fans of Lokomotiv Moscow were invited to a special screening of his act, where they were able to marvel at countless reruns of his guile and execution.
3. Francesco Lodi – Catania (Ita)
As a small boy in Naples in the 1980s, Francesco Lodi would spend countless hours attempting to imitate the brilliance of local hero Diego Maradona from free-kicks – mainly by taking aim at shop signs. And how rewarding those adolescent pot-shots have proved for the 28-year-old.
A master of the side-footed curler which leaves opposing keepers bemused and off-balance, he joined Catania from second division Frosinone midway through the 2010-11 season and within a few weeks he had three dead-ball goals to his name: two in a 3-2 victory over Lecce and an injury-time equaliser in the 2-2 draw with Juventus in Turin.
Often compared to Italy and Juventus star Andrea Pirlo, he has the same free-kick flair and vision; not to mention the same journey from advanced No10 to deep-lying midfield general.
4. Michel Bastos – Lyon (Fra)
They do like a Brazilian set-piece specialist in Ligue 1. From 2001 to 2009, midfield strategist Juninho Pernambucano struck no fewer than 44 goals from free-kicks for Lyon – and while not quite in that stratospheric ballpark, Michel Bastos has proved himself to be an excellent dead-ball artist in his own right, netting a commendable 11 in six years in France (five for former club Lille, six with Lyon).
Not one for the crafted chip into the corners, the winger or left-back is all about power – a goal for Brazil against Zimbabwe in 2010 was measured in excess of 85mph.
He can deliver from any central or right-sided area, although this season he has been troubled by a back condition and has not started regularly. That, however, has not prevented him coming off the bench to wreak havoc – as when arrowing in the only goal in the derby win against Saint-Etienne.
5. Benat – Real Betis (Spa)
Autumn in southern Spain was highlighted by a number of its region’s newspapers deriving a great deal of pleasure from comparing the free-kick stats of the Betis midfield regulator Benat with those of La Liga superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Based on the evidence of last season – and the first-third of the current campaign – Benat’s free-kick completion-rate (15.15 per cent) was vastly superior to those of both Messi (7.01) and Ronaldo (3.03).
Betis’ impressive results this term have much to do with their effectiveness from set-pieces and, whether whipping in fine crosses or going direct for goal (see his strike against Getafe in November), the Athletic Bilbao youth product is the man they look to. Having gone from strength to strength since joining Betis in 2009, he won his first senior cap in May last year.
6. Matias Fernandez – Fiorentina (Ita)
Matias Fernandez, the creative Chilean midfielder who was South America’s Footballer of the Year in 2006, demonstrated just how dangerous he can be with a stationary ball when scoring for Sporting Lisbon against Manchester City in the Europa League last season. City keeper Joe Hart is good enough to be first choice for England, but even he was made to look distinctly ordinary by the pace and trajectory of the “Matigol” effort.
During his formative years at leading Chilean club Colo Colo, memorable free-kick masterpieces – some fuelled with force, others with finesse – were the norm. After an unhappy spell in Spain with Villarreal, he is now back in the groove, inspired by the thunderbolt he thumped past Portugal’s Rui Patricio in a friendly for Chile in March 2011.